Monday, December 29, 2008

Modulation to the Relative Major(ity)

I just did a bit of counting and found that I've been attending Camp Harmony every winter since 1994, which makes it half my life now. I didn't stay for full camp the first year, but after this year, I'll have also spent half of all my New Year celebrations there. Wow.

Camp is in a new location this time, up between Santa Rosa and Calistoga. I miss the old Boulder Creek location already, but I'm excited to see the new place, and to see all the people who are coming out of the woodwork to see it too. (Camp has sold out for the first time in years, which is great.) Lacey, Rowyn, and I are driving up first thing tomorrow morning to help with set-up and welcoming, along with many wonderful members of our Harmony family, whom I can't wait to see.

Happy New Year, everyone!

P.S. I almost titled this post "Picardy Third," which also involves going from minor(ity) to major(ity). But that implies a final cadence, which isn't quite what I want. As for relative major instead of parallel, that's because we've moved to a new location (tonic note) but we'll have all the same good people, music, and dancing to fill in the notes of the scale around it.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

That Ringing in My Ears

A little while ago I realized that my cellphone ring was taking over my brain. It may be that I'm just overly sensitive to music, but I've come to the conclusion that the whole melodies-as-ringtones thing wasn't the greatest idea in the world. At least not for me and my phone.

First, I found myself occasionally noticing musical notes that matched the beginning of one of the melodies my phone uses. I don't have perfect pitch, but I apparently have enough pitch memory to set off associations sometimes. This resulted in periodic, split-second jolts of "oh-my-phone-is-ringing-oh-no-it's-not!" at the beginning of random songs, other people's cell phone rings, etc.

After that, I started being more aware of the part of my brain that's always scanning for my specific ring tone. If I left the TV on and go into another room, something was still picking up faint individual notes from the commercials and promoting them to brief moments of attention, in case they turned out to be from my phone. (Interestingly, though, regular music I was deliberately playing didn't have the same effect, perhaps because I was already consciously following a known melody.) Sometimes I would carry my phone with me from room to room, even though I knew I could hear it fine if it actually rang in another room, just to shut up that part of my mind that's out scouting for it.

Anyway, this all finally got annoying enough that I went and changed everything on my phone to real, honest-to-goodness ringing sounds, like a proper phone. And I must say it's been kind of a relief. My phone doesn't ring often enough to re-train me very quickly, but it doesn't have to. I know it won't be playing a melody at me when it does ring, so the musical part of my brain can relax and go back to it's normal job. Ahhhhh....

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Ghost in Love

The Ghost in Love, by Jonathan Carroll, is probably the most fun and fascinating magical fantasy novel I've read in a while. Cory Doctorow wrote a great review of it over on BoingBoing, which is how I found out about it, and I agree with everything he says there. There's something else that really colored the whole reading experience for me, though.

Normally when I read a fantasy or sci-fi book (or series), I expect to spend some extra time and effort in the beginning, just to get mentally situated. You have to get your bearings, figure out how this fictional world works, see what are the basic assumptions, structures, premises, etc. After that, you can coast a bit more, just absorbing the story as story.

That's not the case with this book. In terms of this particular quality, the entire book feels like a first chapter. You think you're okay once you've got the idea that a guy accidentally didn't die when he was supposed to, and then he coexists with his ghost, who can be seen by and communicate with dogs but not humans. But it just keeps going from there. You're constantly trying to figure out what's possible or not, and why on earth various things are happening. This could have been frustrating, but I found it more enthralling than anything else. It puts you in the same boat as the main characters, after all, who are also trying to figure out how their world is being rearranged. So it really sucks you in and makes you feel a part of it (similar to the way MirrorMask created such a good feeling of dreaming). I also like it just for the sheer flow of ideas. The author isn't going easy on us, or holding anything back, but just letting us drink from a fire hose of imagination. That's fun.

I'll mention one other interesting point, as long as I'm here. Carroll's writing style at times feels very simple, like very straightforward, fairy-tale storytelling. Overall, that's probably a good thing, since there's enough complexity in the content that you don't need more in the presentation. But every once in a while he'll come up with a real zinger of a line that just hits you right between the eyes, and is all the more powerful for the simplicity of its environment. Example: "Like any illness, when happiness has run its course, time is needed to recuperate from it -- sometimes an entire lifetime."

This was the first Jonathan Carroll novel I've read, but I'm thinking I should go find more. If anybody has any recommendations, let me know.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Walking Meditation and a Glass Half-Full

Yesterday I went to a 1-day meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. It was my first time there, though several people (Mom, Alice, Eric, Jill) have been telling me about it for a while. It's a good place. The format and feel of the retreat was rather different than the 1-day I'd been to at the CVC's South Bay Hall, so it was an interesting contrast.

Most significantly, the sitting periods were shorter (45 minutes) and they alternated with periods of walking meditation. I don't think I was terribly interested in the idea of that much walking at a retreat, but I found that I really appreciated the opportunity to practice mindfulness in a different physical context. Also, it provided a physical break from the sitting, while keeping your mind focused on meditation, rather than having complete breaks between sessions. That gave it a different sort of continuity, mentally at least, if not physically.

Gil Fronsdal gave the talk at the end of the day, but the part that I think I most needed to hear was something he just quickly noted in his morning welcome. He pointed out that as your meditation practice improves, you can actually go through a phase of having it feel more frustrating. For example, if you're just daydreaming the whole time and not noticing, an hour could potentially pass pretty quickly and stresslessly. But every time you do notice your attention wandering, you have to bring it back to focus. If you're catching it every time, that could easily happen dozens of times in that same hour. And that's incredibly frustrating, because you constantly feel like you're messing up and starting over. So you just need to remember that the correct comparison when you're learning is not to absolute concentration, but to absolute daydreaming, or whatever your mind would otherwise be doing on its own. Appreciate the number of times you were able to rein in your wandering mind, rather than worrying about the number of times it wandered off.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hot Chix Dig Environmentalists

Do you know someone who is both male and environmentally clueless? Then start training him using the power of positive associations, and get him this for Christmas: The Hot Chix Dig 2009 Calendar: Fighting Global Warming One Pinup at a Time. You can also just buy it for anybody who likes this kind of thing. :-)

The whole Hot Chix Dig project is a clever idea, and it doesn't stop at calendars: check out the rest of their galleries, and the blog as well. I know several of the lovely ladies who've been involved and I'm glad they've had a lot of fun "using [their] best assets for an important cause." So go support them! And follow some of their environmentally friendly tips while you're at it!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

LASIK Anniversary

As of today, it's been a full year since I got LASIK surgery. The short update on it is that I'm still immensely happy with the results, and getting it done was one of the best things I've ever done for myself.

My eyesight is still excellent. The only lingering side effect is that my eyes still tend towards dryness. I mostly only feel it when I wake up in the morning, a bit more so if I'm dehydrated, say from exercising or something. But I keep some eye drops around for when I need them and it's not a big deal.

Overall, I love it. I love not being tethered to external objects for something so essential as vision. I love having peripheral vision with glasses frames at the edges. I love being able to hug and cuddle without knocking bits of metal on faces. I love not having that wall, thin and transparent though it might be, between me and the world. It's wonderful.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Few Post-Voting Notes

I'm mostly unpolitical here on the blog, but I had a few things I wanted to say now that California's propositions are counted. (Here's a good map if you want a breakdown within the state of what votes came from where.)

First of all, I'm disappointed that Prop 8 passed. I won't go into reasons since it's too late and Eric has already done a much better job of that than I could. So I'll just say I'm sorry to the people that this will affect, who I believe are mostly not the people who passed it. But this is how democracy goes sometimes, so we'll just have to take this decision for now and hope we'll get a chance to vote on it again someday.

I also wanted to say that I voted against Props 7 and 10, which didn't pass. This morning I heard someone on CNBC express surprise that California would shoot down alternative fuel bills, and they speculated that it was because gas prices had dropped so much over the last few months. To that I'd like to reply emphatically (and, I hope, accurately) that no we are not that shallow or shortsighted. We voted them down not because the issue is unimportant, but because it's so important that we need better plans to get it right. Believe me, I wanted to find an alternative energy proposition I could support.

As for the really big question of the day, I'm reminded of my first day in Romania when my host family made a point of confirming that I supported Obama. I'm looking forward to having a president I can be proud of, both at home and abroad, not to mention the first president ever that I voted for. And I'm proud of our country for finally being willing and able to achieve such a milestone. I know the euphoria will wear off, and Obama will turn out to be only human and have his faults, like everyone else. But there is still a lot of hope (and, I think, a reasonable probability) that he will at least be a very good human, and a good president.

And now that that's all over I'm left to wonder... will we ever see a gay president in my lifetime?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Autobiography of a Monee

Or: Top Secret Project Revealed
Or: Why I Love My Family

Finished Project Yesterday we had Monee's 80th birthday party and the unveiling of this year's top secret project: her autobiography. This is something she's been working on, off and on, for the last 20 years or so, so everyone knew about it in a general sense at least, but without really expecting anything at any particular time. Around March or so, when I started going up to Rossmoor to visit more often, she told me she was planning on resurrecting the project, finishing it in secret, and surprising everyone with it at her birthday. I was appointed her Secret Editor in Chief, with duties that included proofreading, editing, formatting, and general motivation and encouragement. We chipped away at it a little bit every week, then two months ago Pa and I took it down to a copy shop to get all 70 pages of it printed and bound, along with 50 pages of photos Greg had assembled for it years ago. Then we had to just sit on it quietly and not give anything away until the appointed moment. But it made a beautiful book and it was immensely satisfying to hand them out to everyone when the time finally came.

I am extremely proud of my grandmother for getting this completed. It was no small task, especially since her health was none too good back when I joined the project, and it was very slow going at times. But everything worked out wonderfully, and I'm honored to have been a part of making it happen.

After dinner, dessert, and presentation of the book, the assembled multitudes (well, moderate multitudes) got to go around the circle and share what we appreciate and love about Monee, Gramma Kathy, Mom, Kathleen, or whatever else we all call her. And while we expected (and got) very loving things from family members, I think what struck me most was the non family members. That's sort of an artificial distinction, though. The concept of "family" at these gatherings always feels very fluid and extendable. Not only did several people have significant others there, but there were also two ex-spouses and an ex-girlfriend. One of the exes was my dad, who also brought along my step-mother and step-grandmother, who I don't think had even met any of my family beyond me before.

And what comes through the most from all these supposedly unrelated people is how much a part of the family they became, right from the very beginning, being welcomed and loved right along with everyone else. Shaleece said she was nervous the first time she came to meet everyone, "but as soon as I got here, I wasn't nervous anymore." Grandma Marian said she was welcomed like an old friend in spite of meeting them for the first time. Mom talked about never feeling the slightest doubt about being absolutely, unconditionally loved, and I think it's clear that when you can raise a family like that, it extends well beyond the literal family.

Having grown up in this family, I realized that this is something I've kind of taken for granted, and it's easy to forget that not all families are like that. And it's even more impressive when you realize so much of this is flowing down from a woman who can't remember ever being told "I love you" until my grandfather came along and said it to her. So I admire my Monee all the more for that, and I'm incredibly grateful to be a part of this wonderful family, may it grow ever larger.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Halloween Limericks

Mom is having a Halloween Limerick contest at work and enlisted my suggestions. Here's what you get when you leave me alone for an hour with that idea. Make up your own and leave them in the comments!

From the "I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Bag" Department

Start with Gobstoppers, Skittles, and Twix,
Add some Baby Ruth bars to the mix,
Stir in the Kit Kats,
And some marshmallow bats,
And your sweet tooth will have quite a fix!

Butterfinger, Snickers, and Mounds,
I measure my carbs by the pound!
With 3 Musketeers,
Coming out of my ears,
My failing heart makes not a sound.

From the "Scary Yet Repentant" Department

When a frightening thing with a sack,
Shows up at the door of my shack,
I shoot it on sight,
Then, very contrite,
I go bury the child out back.

From the "Arsenic and Old Lace" Department

Where the old Brewster sisters abide,
You'll find several dead bodies to hide,
The elderberry wine,
Masks arsenic, strychnine,
And a pinch -- just a pinch! -- of cyanide.

(Yeah, I know, it doesn't scan quite right. Oh well.)

From the "Off-Topic But At Least It's Bipartisan" Department

What really fills me full of fright,
Is the week after Hallowe'en night,
Whether terrorist-pleaser,
Or a senile geezer,
I surely do hope we choose right!

From the "Teasing Mom About Her Limerick Attempts" Department

If your badly-planned limerick dies,
Just pray from the dead it may rise,
To terrorize villages,
With rapings and pillages,
And possibly gouging out eyes.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Not a Good Week to Be My Car

... Or my bank account, for that matter. Last Friday I got stuck in the Trader Joe's parking lot with a bag of groceries (luckily only one frozen item) and Iris refusing to start. Got her towed to a shop and outfitted with a new main fuse, new starter, and replacements for some burnt out wiring, all to the tune of nearly $500.

Smash Then today I was driving back from visiting Dad et al in Rio Vista. Somewhere along Highway 4, I saw something fly up into the air ahead of me, presumably out of someone else's car. I couldn't tell what it was, but figured it was just some litter, since it seemed to rise so high up into the air. It proved to be something fairly substantial, though, when it smashed into my windshield. Sigh.

Anyway, Iris took the injuries from it and will be getting a new windshield tomorrow, and I'm fine. Unfortunately I've got a high enough insurance deductible that I'll be paying for this, too. I just hope I've now worked through whatever bad "car-ma" I apparently had to work though.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

On MOMAs and Comics

SF MOMA Whenever I travel and get into "museum mode" I always enjoy visiting modern art museums. So it occurred to me recently that it was sort of silly that I'd never even been to San Francisco's MOMA. It turns out that the first Tuesday of each month is free admission day, so earlier this week I took the train up and had myself a little field trip.

I've written before about how I enjoy modern art in a "panning for gold" sort of way. I typically sift through a lot of stuff that doesn't particularly do much for me, until I find the one or two bits that I really appreciate. This particular trip didn't have anything that got me hugely excited (though there were some amusing bits) but that's okay. There were still some reasonably interesting things and I just consider it all the luck of the draw anyway.

But when it comes right down to it, what am I really looking for? A lot of it, I think, is really just about ideas. I like seeing things I haven't thought of before, sheer creativity in action, especially if they tickle my interest or my funny bone. Things like an alphabetized bible, or musical geography (my favorite from Helsinki's Kiasma museum).

Growth Variant No. VII Another thing I like is art that gives your brain something to work with, while not being too specific about what. Things that may be abstract, but are nonetheless detailed, not just splotches of paint. A lot of Kandinsky's work is a good example of this. His "Small Worlds" series of paintings is given a context by the name, but still leaves a lot of the construction of those worlds to the viewer's mind.

I found an unexpected parallel to this recently when I read Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. This is a fantastic book, with some really brilliant observations about comics, art, and storytelling in general. Highly recommended -- you'll never read comics the same way again.

One of the things that really struck me as a concept in this book was his discussion of artistic styles and how they range from realistic to iconic to abstract. Characters have been drawn all over this range, and he has a chart showing over 100 of them positioned according to these three qualities, but different positions in this range have different effects on the reader. A highly realistically drawn person is a very specific person, but the less detailed or more iconic it becomes, the more people it could potentially represent. In particular, the possibility of it being the reader's own self increases. The more blanks there are, the more we fill in from ourselves. The more we fill in, the greater empathy and connection we have with the character.

For an interesting example of this, take a look at any Tintin book. The guy's head is shaped like an onion for goodness' sake, and he's got dots for eyes. The backgrounds, however, are relatively quite detailed, realistic, and believable. The overall style is optimized for making the reader really feel part of the story.

I think what I like in art, beyond just comics, is that same sense of needing to contribute something to the full experience. It doesn't even have to be anything specific, just a sense of mystery, of not knowing exactly what's there and having the freedom to insert something of your own into it. That's what I'm looking for.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Tale of Two Ice Creams

One ice cream flavor I've been wanting to try for a while has been chai. On Friday I decided to give it a shot, since I wanted to make a batch of something for people to eat on Saturday afternoon after helping Rowyn move. This turned out to be two of the most thwartful and problematic ice cream making experiences I've had yet, though entirely worth it in the end.

All of the recipes I found online seemed to involve lots of eggs. I was a bit leery of this because the last time I made a tea-related ice cream (red tea) it had six egg yolks in it and actually tasted eggy even after it was finished. I should have just ditched the recipes from the start, but I ended up using this one and scaling down the amount of eggs in it. I also was pretty imprecise with the spices, since I didn't have all the whole spices it called for but I did have a lot of McCormick's chai spice blend to supplement what I did have.

In general, I think it came out alright. But once it was done I realized what I had really wanted, and that wasn't it. All the eggs make the ice cream extremely thick and creamy, which is nice in some cases. But what I wanted here was a much lighter, melt-in-your-mouthier version. (Well, I suppose any ice cream will melt in your mouth, but you know what I mean.) Ordinarily I'd just make a note for next time and then let it go, but this time around I guess I was just feeling ornery about doing it right, so I biked back to the store for more cream to try again.

This is when things started getting particularly inconvenient, since I returned home to find that my apartment complex had a power outage. I tried waiting it out for a while, hoping my first batch of ice cream would still be okay in the freezer. I called PG&E a few times and they were working on it, but the ETA for the fix kept getting moved later. So I finally ate (a cold) dinner, then carted all my ingredients and things over to Rowyn's place to use her power. All the spices and tea have to steep for a long time in the cream, but I did what I could and then left it to chill in her fridge while we went to Friday Night Waltz. I picked it up again afterwards and took it home to put in the ice cream maker around midnight. Unfortunately, though the power had since come back on, the ice cream maker hadn't re-frozen properly and didn't work. So after 15 minutes with absolutely no change, I had to pour the mix out again, wash the ice cream maker, put it back in the freezer, and go to bed. Then I got up early to finally finish the whole thing, and that time it worked.

Anyway, in spite of all the weirdness it had to go through, the final product came out quite well indeed. If you want to try it yourself, you can still use this basic recipe and just modify it. I used 2 cups of regular cream, 1 cup of milk, and no eggs. Don't split up the cream like they do, just steep all the spices in all the dairy at once (though the tea goes in later). Then of course skip all the steps involving eggs and custard and whatnot. Comes out very yummy.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Predictions, Wrong and Maybe-Not-So-Wrong

The So You Think You Can Dance? finale is tonight/tomorrow night. I missed the first season, so this is the third one I've followed. It's interesting how sometimes you can pick out a clear winner right from the start, and sometimes you can't.

In Season 2, Benji was just so ridiculously fun to watch that he was a shoo-in from the beginning. The fact that he actually won made me believe in the "wisdom of crowds." Last year was different. Nobody jumped out at me so much, and I probably would have been happy with several different winners. Luckily, Sabra was one of them.

This year is wacky. First of all, Evan Kasprzak completely sold me in the auditions, but inexplicably failed to make it through the Las Vegas cuts. Then, for most of the season, Will Wingfield seemed about as clear a winner as Benji had been. He did absolutely everything beautifully. He was stuck with a weak partner for a while, which was too bad, but it almost didn't matter because it was usually hard to watch her anyway, with him on stage. And at least as important as his partner routines were his solos, which included actual variety. I tend to think the contemporary (and ballroom) dancers have the solos that are the most same-seeming, and get the most boring after a while. So being able to do something noticeably different each time is a big plus.

But Will got voted off! What was America thinking? Ironically it was on the night that Nigel had reminded everyone to register to vote for the presidential elections as well. This does not have me looking forward to November. Anyway, that leaves me with Katee as my pick for the best remaining dancer, with Joshua as my second choice. The two of them have definitely been the best partnership of the show, doing a lot of my favorite routines. I don't think either of them has ever been voted into the bottom yet. Twitch could have a chance just as a personality favorite, but he still has weak points in his dancing, so I don't think he'll take the whole show.

But if we learned anything from Will's elimination, it's that this competition is about America's favorite dancer, not best. So I'm not going to get too attached to any of my own predictions tonight.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Three-Person Polkas

I got pulled into a polka with Tracey and Bob at FNW last night, and it turned out to be quite successful. When I've been in this sort of situation in the past, I've usually resorted to a very vertical polka redowa step. This makes it less important which foot you're on at any given time, since you aren't trying to reach and step line-of-direction as much. (And that's important because you can't do 180° turns anymore with three people, so you're always at different angles and you don't have enough feet to handle them all.)

What we ended up doing this time was basically just a traveling basket-hold buzz-step swing, right feet in the middle, paddling ourselves around with our lefts. I didn't think to much about how we were actually accomplishing the traveling, but it seems to work out okay just to aim somewhere and let your propulsion naturally bias itself that direction. We also tried putting left feet in and turning counter-clockwise, but that was more difficult, perhaps just because we aren't as used to doing left-footed buzz-steps.

Another option just occurred to me as well, which would be to mix Newports in with regular polka steps. That way you could remain on a particular foot a little longer, until your rotation has changed so that it's convenient to switch to the other foot. E.g. instead of going 1&2-1&2, you could go 1&2&3-1&2, or 1&2-1&2&3. Obviously you'd be having hemiolas all over the place, and it could be tricky to figure out exactly when to do the switch, and there might be times when neither foot is really convenient to be on. But it might be worth an experiment, especially if you can make sure your threesome can consistently get 360° around every three polka steps.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

¡Buen Viaje!

I'm driving Lacey to the airport this morning. She has a one-way ticket to Guatemala for her next adventure, so I don't know quite when I'm going to see her again. I do know that she's going to make a wonderful experience of it all, and I'm very proud, as I always am, of my dear sister. ¡Buen viaje!

(As for me, I just haven't been in much of a writing mood recently. Don't take it personally. The blogging will come back at some point, I'm sure.)

Monday, June 30, 2008

Stanford Dance Weekend

It felt like it had been a while since I'd done one of the Stanford Dance Weekends so it was a lot of fun to come back to it this year. I came out of it tired, but not unreasonably so, and quite happy with the dancing and learning both. The dancey goodness included:  

West Coast Swing. Michelle Kinkaid taught four classes in this, so I jumped at the opportunity to try to recover some of my atrophied WCS skills and took all of them. They were good classes, but with a rather high talking::dancing ratio. I think her active/passive lead theory is really helpful, but will take a while to be able to apply properly. 

Musicality. This was the only class Lilli Ann Carey taught, but she deserved a lot more time (and space), I thought. I didn't really learn anything new there, but it's an interesting discussion topic and I wanted to see how she taught it, since it's a topic near and dear to my heart. 

Fusion Waltz. Ari Levitt was mixing things like tango and latin into his waltz. I only made it to one of his classes, but I liked it much more than expected, having been ambivalent about "fusion" stuff. (He's teaching it at Friday Night Waltz in a couple weeks, too, if you want to check it out.) 

Cha Cha. It was a bit of a risk taking a beginning cha cha class in the middle of all my west coast, but I did it anyway and didn't mess myself up too much. Joan said the term "Latin-phobic" in her class description was inspired by a conversation with me years ago. Glad I could help. :-) 

Cross Step Waltz. Richard, as always, wins the prize for clearest, most efficient teaching. The "new variations" class especially left me with a bunch of good stuff to play with (which really did all seem to be new). I got some good following practice in the lead-heavy pivaloops class, too. 

Dancing! The dances on Friday and especially Saturday night were some of the most satisfying I've had in a while. Though there were more people I would have liked to have there, I got to dance with some of my favorite partners (including my visiting sister), and with many nice new people as well (including several of the teachers), and it wasn't too crowded. I also had some of the most incredible flying redowas ever with Rowyn. Good stuff all around.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Rowyn and I are DJing Friday Night Waltz in Palo Alto tomorrow night. We'll have some current favorites, some old favorites, and some new or newish songs to keep things interesting. So if you like the kind of music we like, come and dance to some of it!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Not 30 Yet

For such a solid-seeming number, 28 turned out to be my most unstable, changeable year probably since 23 or so. (I realize now that it makes more sense if you realize that 28 is numerologically related to 10 - The Wheel of Fortune.) You can never really tell whether changes are ultimately good or bad, but some of them were certainly more pleasant than others. One relationship ended and another began. One job ended and has not yet been replaced, though that's still okay. I got another regular volunteer gig instead. I've been to four new countries. I survived an accident that my car didn't. I got 20/20 vision. I learned to meditate.

Looking at that brief list as a whole, I think I have a lot to be thankful for and happy about. There have been times when I've forgotten that, though -- times when I was too shaken by the things that didn't make me happy or thankful, or times when I was simply too caught up in the raw change and uncertainty to notice. It's been that sort of a year.

I don't have a lot of inherent associations with 29, other than it being some sort of morbid gateway to 30 (yeah, you over-30's can laugh at me). But it's also an 11 - Justice. So perhaps it will be a year for regaining focus and clarity, for doing the right thing(s) with confidence. I'll take that.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Only Malcolm

For Drawing Day today I decided to do one of the characters from my last novel. His name is Malcolm, and yes, the name was blatantly inspired by "only Malcolm" from Expecting Someone Taller. I'd been wanting to draw him ever since I wrote the story, so here he is.

Only Malcolm

Malcolm is "a very minor and worried demon" who takes the form of a miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex wearing a shirt and tie. He's important to the story, if not to anyone else.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Draw Something This Saturday

Drawing Day 2008 This Saturday, June 7, is the first annual Drawing Day. If you want to join in, all you have to do is draw something (anything) and post it online (anywhere). If you "can't draw," draw anyway. It's fun. And/or think of something clever for me to draw, since I haven't decided what to do yet. (And I have been known to take requests.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Three Month Report Card

I realized last night that I've been "gainfully unemployed" for about 3 months now, a quarter of a year. An interesting quality of this period in my life is my sense of time. I feel like I've been much more present-focused recently. In some ways this is great. I like having and taking advantage of the freedom to just do whatever the heck I feel like at any given time (well, most given times). It has its downsides too, though, such as the fact that I couldn't focus at all on planning for my Romania trip. (Luckily it worked out anyway.)

But it's not completely a goldfish's life -- I still have goals and to-dos and things like that, and I still like to look back and see how I've been using my time. I had originally posted a list of stuff I wanted to do, so let's see how I've been doing on that:
  • Music. For a while I was practicing harmony singing a lot, which was really good. I should get that habit going again. I haven't been playing much, but I did at least write a couple tunes.
  • Art. Not much yet, though I have a few little things that need to be put up on the wall project.
  • Writing. Again, not much. I still have various blog posts that have been meaning to get written for a while. I started a story at one point, until my conscious mind realized where my subconscious had stolen the main idea from and called it quits.
  • Volunteering. I'm recording fairly regularly for Books Aloud now, and still giving a few hours to Project Read each week. Fewer HOBA events right now, but I'll keep an eye on them, too.
  • Travel. Romania wasn't quite the trip I'd imagined, but it was interesting in its own way. It did at least sooth the travel bug for the time being.
  • Meditation. The meditation retreat has to be one of the best things I've done in a long time, and it was a good time in my life for it. (Not that I don't wish I'd done it 5 years ago when Eric first told me about it.) I'm still managing the recommended two hours most days, which sounds like a lot at first, but is absolutely worth it.
  • Cooking. Haha.
  • Outdoorsiness. Some, though I'd still like to explore more state parks and maybe go camping or something.
  • Dancing. Plenty so far. Mostly the usual suspects, though I've been meaning to get out and learn some hustle at some point.
  • Reading. Interestingly, for a month or two I was hardly reading at all, which is weird for me, especially when I'm unemployed. It's picking up again, though, and I'm working on speed reading a bit, too.
  • Redesign my blog. Nah, haven't really felt the motivation for it yet.
In addition to all that, there have also been things that weren't on the original list:
  • Music editing. I've started learning to do some basic editing, since there's a lot of good music around that I want to dance to but is too long, or the wrong tempo, or whatever. It's kind of fun and can have some interesting challenges sometimes.
  • More blogging. Over on the Social Dance Music blog.
  • Exercising. The running and workout habits got a bit screwed up by my two trips, but are starting to come back together again.
  • Investing. Well, I do this anyway, just not super actively most of the time. Right now, though, CNBC is running their Million Dollar Portfolio Challenge (an investing contest with fake money), and I'm playing along with that, just for fun and education.
  • Love life. Um, yeah... there is one now. It's nice. :-)
And some new things to add to the "coming up" part of the list:
  • Stuff-purging. Not as drastically as Lacey, but she has been inspiring me to get rid of a bunch of possessions that I really don't need to keep around.
  • Mini road trip. In about a month I'm going up to Oregon to drive back down with Lacey. Small, as trips go, but sister-visits are good.
  • Stanford Dance Weekend. The web site doesn't say it's sold out yet, so sign up if you want to join me.
  • Family history projects. I still have a few boxes of various family artifacts (e.g. old photos, journals, letters, etc.) that need processing. I've been remiss in my role as junior family historian (apprentice to uncle Jim), but I've been meaning to work on it.
  • Another job? It'll happen eventually, I'm sure, I just don't know when or what. Part of me does kind of want to find something interesting for new "real" work, but it's still decidedly in the minority. I think unemployment suits me. :-)
So anyway, that's how things are now. Maybe in another three months I'll do another update and see where we are then.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Clean Up Your Energy Bill

Antonia recently gave me a $5 gift card from Renewable Choice Energy. What that modest amount of money lets you do is basically convert a month's worth of the energy you use to wind power. (Though for me, the 250 kilowatt hours is more like two average months.) You still pay the same amount on your same electric bill, but 250 KWH of wind power energy gets added to the national power grid, chipping away at the 98% of the energy that's coming from non-renewable sources like fossil fuels. They estimate the impact of that as equivalent to not driving 429 miles, or planting 4 trees, or not burning 187 pounds of coal. In addition to the gift cards, you can also sign up for subscription plans on their site.

While I was thinking about that, I went to PG&E's website to check out my actual energy consumption, and I noticed a program they have called ClimateSmart. If you sign up for this, a small amount gets added to each electric bill, calculated to offset your energy usage by investing in projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Their estimate for me, based on my last bill of $15.27, was $0.33 or about 2%. At four bucks a year, I think that's worth doing.

So that's two easy things most of us can afford to do to improve our energy usage and our environment. Anybody have other good suggestions?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Triple Triple Big Dance

Big Dance 2008 All-Nighters This last weekend was the 15th annual Big Dance, and my own personal 9th year in a row making it all the way to 6 AM, which makes it my "Triple Triple Crown" year. (Now that I think about it, that puts Richard at his Quintuple Triple, for being there all 15 years. Wow.) The dance felt a bit smaller than usual, though we still had 144 people make it all night.

The performances were all really good this year; I even enjoyed Los Salseros quite a bit (nothing against them in general, but salsa's not usually my thing). Danse Libre did a great job kicking off the 1920's theme early on, though the guys must have been dying in their tuxes with that heat. Decadance rocked, as usual, and I especially liked their new country piece to "All Things Considered." Swingtime didn't have a very clean performance, but they did have some of the most entertaining Cat's Corner solos I've seen in a long time. Good stuff.

The competitions were mostly okay, though I think I would have designed some of them differently. I also think it's time to retire Swing-with-Props and Tacky Tango, at least for a few years. (I know, I know, don't complain if I don't want to be on the committee.) Bob and I were all set to completely trounce everyone on the schottische race when we found out it was a three-legged schottische race. Since they used wimpy little streamers to tie our legs together, everyone was hobbling around like geriatrics trying not to tear them. Oh well. And here's a tip if you ever find yourself in a cross-step waltz freeze-tag competition: pretend to be frozen until the very end, then start dancing again just in time to not get tagged for real. Credit to Rowyn for that bit of brilliance, though unfortunately it came too late to save us.

6:15 AM I was very happy to not only get a good set for the Dawn Mazurka but to remember all the figures, even at 5:20 in the morning. Thanks to Jeff for explaining the Tiroirs figure on Thursday -- I had been confused about that. And thanks to many other people for all the other good dances, especially Rowyn for the lullaby gauntlet, the last waltz, and many others.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

My Romanian Tunes

Okay, one more post from the trip. Since I had my mandolin with me and a fair bit of downtime at the orphanage, I ended up writing a couple tunes. The Rowan Tree and The Carpathian Foothills, both in F# minor, a key I've been wanting to do something with for a while. Here they are, if you're interested.

The Rowan Tree
The Carpathian Foothills

I also made a quick recording of them (MP3, 3.2 MB). After messing around for way too long trying to get my computer to record nicely from my microphone, I didn't feel like doing a ton of takes. But it does the job.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Romania Trip, 2008

Now that I've got everything posted, here it all is:


I only spent a little under two days in Bucharest, but I think that was about enough time there for me. It was certainly a major change from village life.

Hotel Carpati
My Hotel Room 1 I stayed at the Hotel Carpati, which is conveniently in the middle of Bucharest. The first interesting feature of the hotel that I encountered was the elevator. You have to pull open a door from the hallway and then push open the door in the elevator itself before you can squeeze into the small space, which can be tricky if you have a couple bags (especially since the doors swing inwards, rather than sliding sideways). Once you've managed to get the door closed you get taken to your floor, but then you have to guess which of the two identical doors you're supposed to go out of. If you open one, you see a bare concrete wall. If you open the other, you see what looks like a bare concrete wall, but it has a place to push on it, after which you realize it's actually the door to the hallway.

The other curious feature was the arrangement of the bathroom facilities. Apparently there was no room large enough to fit all the usual components of a bathroom, so things were spread across three different rooms. My bedroom contained a sink and a mirror. Going down one hall and around a corner leads to the gents' toilet. Going down the other hall in the other direction leads to the shower. There was no overlap in functionality between any of these rooms. Additionally, the shower room had a small square shower (no tub) with a hand-held shower head and no shower curtain. That meant you had to be very careful with your aim, since your clothes and towel are hanging very much within range.

Palatul Parlamentului
IMG_2166.JPG On my first (partial) day in the city I mostly just strolled around getting oriented, then went downBulevardul Unirii to see the second largest building in the world. Ceauşescu had entire neighborhoods bulldozed to create this, destroying thousands of homes and historical buildings (he had them classified as "slums" or something like that, to get away with it). It's so big that if you go to the wrong entrance at first (like I did) you have a considerable walk to get around the building to the right place.

Once inside, you can pay a bit too much for a ticket, considerably more for photographing privileges (though they don't enforce that, so you can get away without it), then wait for a long time while they confuse you about how to get in the English or Romanian tour groups. You don't end up getting a tour of the whole thing, of course, but you get to see about a dozen rooms so you get a good sense of it. If you like vast expanses of marble and enormous chandeliers, this is the place for you. Otherwise, most of it looks kinda the same after the first couple rooms.

Arcul de Triumf The Bulevardul Unirii, leading away from the palace, is modeled on the Champs Elysees, though deliberately made a few meters wider and longer. Still trying to out-do the French, Ceauşescu also built Bucharest's own Arcul de Triumf, though it appeared to be getting defeated by scaffolding when I saw it.

IMG_2258.JPG I made it through several museums on my one full day there. I think my favorite was the GeorgeEnescu music museum, in a smaller, converted palace. Enescu is Romania's main famous classical musician/composer, and I hadn't ever heard of him but I'm interested in tracking down and listening to more of his music now. Most of the museum was various historical/biographical artifacts from his life. The video they show was quite good and informative, too, with lots of famous musicians and conductors talking aboutEnescu and his compositions.

IMG_2321.JPG The other best museum, in my opinion, was the Village Museum inHerăstrău Park. It contains actual cottages, churches, and other buildings collected from villages around Romania. They're all assembled into their own motley little village, and a lot are even set up inside so you can see what the interiors would have looked like as well. Very nicely done, I thought.

Natural History Museum The Museum of the Romanian Peasant is another famous one, but after the Village Museum I mostly just skimmed through here. The Natural History Museum has a ton of specimens, but not all terribly good quality, and with very little actual information to go along with them (even less in English). They do have several dinosaur skeletons from Argentina in a temporary exhibit right now, though, and dinosaurs are always fun. I didn't get to go to the art museum, as it was closed the days I was there.

Herăstrău Park In contrast to the rest of the city, the parks in Bucharest in May are beautifully lush and green. The ones I went to all had numerous playgrounds, lakes with boats to rent, plenty of nice walking paths and benches, flower gardens, various statues and memorials, and snogging couples of all ages. All the right things parks should have. My hotel was quite near Parcul Cişmigiu, so that was a nice place to relax after a day of tromping around the city. I also spent a while at the much larger Parcul Herăstrău in the north part of the city. It contained a garden full of sculptures of almost identical giant heads, but also a lot more interesting sculptures, too.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Excursions in Prahova County

The volunteer program I was on includes the occasional day trip out to other touristy sites in the area. For my last Friday there, Gabriel had offered to drive me out to Bran Castle (billed nowadays as "Dracula's Castle," though the only connection with Vlad Ţepeş [the supposed "historical" Dracula] is that he once laid siege to it). However, Robin was going to be working that day and taking Sunday off, and I wanted to help him with the construction project as much as I could while I was still around. So I passed on that and figured we could take a trip together on Sunday. Once Friday rolled around, though, we found out it was a saint's day of some sort and we weren't allowed to work, so we had two days off. By that time, though, Gabriel had disappeared with the jeep and the only vehicle we had available was Robin's RV. We didn't want to go all the way to Bran in that, so no castles for us, but we found a couple other nice places to go visit and hike around.

IMG_2059.JPG On Friday we went to Cheia and had lunch at a fairly nice looking restaurant where most of the items on the menu were not available and most of the desserts involved "pancakes" (which turned out to be crepes -- I got the ones wrapped around scoops of chocolate ice cream). From there we went to a mountainous national park, which I unfortunately did not get the name of. We left the RV at the bottom of the non-RV-friendly road and hiked extremely uphill for a while, cutting across the loops in the road via paths that mostly went where we expected them to. At more or less the top, it flattens out a bit and there's a parking lot, a cafe and some other buildings.

View from (almost) the top However, as you look around there, you see another ridge up above that seems to have a completely vertical black line painted on it (see this photo). While Robin took a break to get some coffee, I went to investigate and found that you could go up yet another thousand feet or so. It wasn't quite as vertical as it looked (though close to it) and there were rough steps pressed into the earth and steel cables strung alongside. (This was presumably for you to hold onto as you climbed, though there were sections where you had to choose either the cable or the steps. But mostly the steps were enough.) I climbed about 600-something steps and got probably 3/4 of the way up. The last section gets even steeper and more rugged, though, and since it was already quite vertiginous enough for me, I decided to let it go. I'm pretty sure the view couldn't have gotten much better anyway. Coming back down turned out to be more difficult than going up, actually, since you're not facing into the mountain. My legs were killing me by the time I got back down. Great climb, though.

IMG_2097.JPG On Sunday we pulled out the map again and found a lake called Siriu that looked like it would be a nice size to hike around in an afternoon, so we packed a picnic and drove out there. It was quite a nice lake, though it turned out to be man-made with a dam, and to not have anything remotely resembling a trail around it. We hiked along the hilly shore for a while then sat on a nice rocky outcropping to eat lunch. It was getting ready to rain at that point, though, and we could tell there was no way we'd be able to make it all around so we headed back to the RV and had a nice cup of tea inside during the afternoon shower.

Rural Romania is really lovely, so it's a shame that people don't take care of it very well. Everywhere we went there was trash just all over the ground, and of course no trash bins to put it in anyway. Bucharest was actually cleaner in that respect since the city and parks have places to actually throw away your stuff.

In and Around Valea Screzii

IMG_1982.JPG I mentioned before that I was going to be in a village called Valea Plopului. That's where Pro Vita was started, but they now have a lot of facilities in the neighboring village of Valea Screzii, a couple miles away, which is where I ended up spending all my time. Each village probably only has a few hundred people, and everything's strung out along a single dirt road. You know you've reached the end of the village when the road peters out and melts into the forest. A few other miscellaneous points to set the scene: The guy who picked me up at the airport is in his early 20's, and owns three cell phones and a cow. Also, his name is Gabriel and he has a sister named Gabriella (though luckily they found other names for the four other brothers). Between the two little villages, there are no stores or restaurants or anything like that, but there are 27 chapels and churches. You can make of all this what you like.

Church of the Third Wheel I found out shortly before I left that the Eastern Orthodox Easter was coming up in the middle of my trip. Since the vast majority of people there are Eastern Orthodox, there's a lot of time spent in church for several days. Melanie andMihail took me along to the first night of Easter services, which started at 11:30 PM Saturday night and went until 5 in the morning, including sections outside and in two different churches. I didn't understand much of what what going on (it being in Romanian and all), but I enjoyed the candle lighting and singing, though things got a bit repetitive after a while. I was invited to sit up in the area by the altar in both of the churches. I don't know if that was just a courtesy for a guest (the regular part of the church was standing-room only) or if there's some other significance, but it was it was interesting to have that viewpoint of the proceedings.

On Easter afternoon, after sleeping through the morning, I got to go along to an Easter dinner with Mihail's family (after a brief stop at another church to kiss some icons, light more candles, and have holy water flicked at us). Mihail's father is the head priest (there's probably a real term for that?) at Valea Plopului, so he had been the one leading all the services the night before. There were also 5 siblings and some in-laws there. It was a long, drawn-out, happy family sort of dinner, so it was nice to be included in it, though I was again sad that I didn't know any Romanian. It feels awkward to be welcomed in by the people but still excluded by the language.

For one week before Easter (or 8, I think, depending on how hardcore you are about it) everybody eats entirely vegan. That suited me just fine, though by the time I got there I think the natives were having dreams about sausages. Once Easter arrives they eat meat like it's their job. Aside from meat, there's lots of bread and potatoes, and very little in the way of fresh fruits and veggies. In spite of all that, most of what I ate was quite tasty (though the fish soup we had one day with mackerels tossed in practically whole was a bit much). My digestive system didn't even freak out too much, which surprised me since I've been semi-vegetarian recently.

Robin enjoys cooking, so once he arrived we had a few excellent non-Romanian dinners as well, cleverly improvised from whatever he could find around the house and stuff he'd brought with him (which included various spices and such, as well as 36 days worth of army rations he acquired in England somehow). On my last night there, most of the rest of the household was gone but Robin made me a fantastic four-course goodbye dinner, working entirely out of the mini-kitchen in his RV. It included the best moussaka I've ever had (a famous specialty of his, apparently), and even apple crumble for dessert (he'd heard I'm a fan of apple pie and similar things). Yum.

Hiking in the Hills Valea Screzii is in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and at this time of year everything is gloriously covered in lush green foliage. The woods up on the hills are some of the most picturesque I've ever seen, from a distance at least. For actually hiking around in, they're not that interesting. The trees are mostly identical and block your view of any landmarks, and there's no ground cover, or paths, or other stuff to change it up. Also, some of the hills are extremely steep, which can be difficult when you're sliding around in last Fall's leaf litter. But I found that if I climbed up and over the hill behind our house, I could get to a more open valley, and that was sort of nice to hike around the edges of, going in and out of the forest. Quena had reminded me that there are dragons in Romania (that's where Charlie Weasley works, after all) so I kept my eyes peeled for them. I think they're probably all farther up in the mountains, though.

Romanian driving can be a hair-raising experience. We were barely out of Bucharest when we started passing cows and horse-drawn carts on the roads. (The horse carts have their own license plates, which I found amusing.) Even on winding, narrow country roads, drivers will blithely zoom past these and other vehicles, often dodging out of the oncoming lane with just inches to spare before hitting someone else going the other direction. I got used to it a little bit, but not much. In a couple places I saw "Children Crossing" signs near schools, but the silhouetted figures were not calmly crossing the street but clearly leaping back in terror from near death experiences.

When we were hauling things up to the new sheep pastures in the hills, we usually took the tractor with a cart towed behind it, and I had some interesting rides there, too. On one trip, Gabriel and I perched on top of a stack of fence segments, trying not to sway too much or unbalance the load. We got off after we left the (relatively) smooth road for the horribly steep, muddy, rutted hillside, but trying to sit on the tractor wheel wells wasn't much better. Maybe I don't weigh enough, but I bounce around so much there that I had trouble holding on. On the way back I rode in the empty cart, but even there you still have to crouch down and hold on tight, not to mention dodging flying clods of mud from the tractor wheels once you hit the road and speed up.

On the last trip, we dropped the borrowed tractor off at its owner's house, and Melanie picked us up (me and three guys all much larger than me) in her basic little four-door sedan. The back seat was already full of groceries, so we pushed those aside and two guys sat on top of each other in the other seat. Then Mihail sat in front and I sat on his lap with my head twisted back around his shoulder, pressed against the roof of the car, one arm behind the seat and one arm out the window holding onto the roof. That was rough for a couple of miles, but thankfully Melanie let us out to walk the last segment of really bumpy dirt road.

I went for a couple drives with Robin in his RV, and that was certainly a monster on those little roads (though there were still trucks bigger than us out there, too). I was impressed with his handling of it, though, especially since it's English and has a right-side drive, which I expect makes the navigation/dodging even harder. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to do it.

On my ride back to Bucharest I was in a jeep with four other people, a bunch of luggage, and a large, farting puppy. That was a cramped two hours. I'd seen the jeep fuller than that, though, with, I think, the majority of the Tanase family in it. Also, Gabriel will answer whichever of his cell phones happen to ring while he's driving. I've seen him holding one phone up to each ear, alternating conversations and steering with his elbows.

On my first night there, Mihail asked me "Did you vote for Obama?" When I said yes, he replied "Good. We like you already."

Volunteering with Pro Vita

Since volunteering with the orphanage was the original motivation for my trip, I'll start with that. Unfortunately, this also happened to be one of the more frustrating things for me. The feeling a lot of the time was that the organization just didn't know (or care) what to do with a volunteer. To be fair, of course, the reality was probably a variety of things: the volunteer coordinators being busy with other projects, the fact that I was the only volunteer there at the time, Easter throwing a wrench in the schedule and activities, etc. My orientation basically consisted of being shown a few buildings, not getting introduced to anyone, and being told none of the other people who work there speak English. I didn't even know the kids' schedules or the rules or anything. At that point they sort of left me on my own to do whatever I wanted (I didn't even see the coordinators for a couple days), which isn't a terribly comfortable situation to be in when you're completely disoriented in a new country. Also, I was promised Romanian lessons several times but never got them, so I was stuck with the stuff I had managed to learn on my own. "Where's the hotel?" and "I'd like to buy some wine" don't get you very far in that context, though. Anyway, I did what I could, though I rarely felt very helpful or useful or anything. Some of that was my fault as well, of course, since I'm sure there are ways I could have been a better, more pro-active volunteer even without any guidance. But it wasn't the sort of situation I work well in, and getting frequently depressed about it didn't help at all. Anyway, on to what I did do....

Adrian and Christina I spent a lot of time with the toddlers, of which there are currently three: Christina, Adrian, and Marion. (Some of these names may have Romanian spellings that I don't know.) The plus side to these kids was that I usually knew where to find them, they had no school or homework or chores to work around, and the language barrier feels less problematic when you're communicating at a 3-year-old level. Though there were still numerous times that one of them would be really earnestly trying to tell me something and I'd feel awful because I just had no clue what it was, and I'm not sure they really get the concept of me not knowing their language. Christina was the sweetie of the group. Marion was the quiet, shy one, who'd usually wait for the other kids to start things before joining in. Adrian was the troublemaker. I know conceptually that kids will "act out" just to get attention, but I'd never seen it so clearly demonstrated as with him. You could literally see him experimenting, gauging my reactions, making mental notes about it, and then deliberately doing it again later. Fascinating and maddening at the same time.

Vasile I spent less time with the school-age kids. It was harder to know what to do with them or where or when. Some of the older ones know some English, but the majority of them in the 6-10 age range or so don't. When you meet them on the playground and can only say things like "my name's Graham, I don't speak Romanian," you get a lot of blank or suspicious looks. I did bring my mandolin along on the trip, which I had hoped would be a good way to break the ice, but even that wasn't easy. One of the main buildings where the kids live was constantly blaring Romanian radio out to the playground and surrounding area, so you can't just kind of hang out and play. When I did get a chance, though, the mandolin was a fairly big hit. Not that they cared about listening to me play, of course, they all just wanted to do it themselves. But I'm happy to let them play around with the strumming as long as I held onto the instrument and fingered chords and stuff. Vasile, one of the six-year-olds, amused me by being the only one to start off strumming in jig time. Christina liked it a lot, too, and would insist on sitting on my lap and scooting under the mandolin strap with me so she could try to hold it properly (though it's as big as she is). I wish I'd gotten a picture of that.

Me and Alina Pro Vita also helps take care of several adults with various disabilities who are unable to live independently but all share a building next to mine and help out with various things around the organization and the farm. I hung out with them a bit, too, especially Alina who is the most outgoing and communicative of the lot. She's picked up fragments of various languages from other volunteers in the past, but even if she doesn't know many words she tries so energetically and enthusiastically to communicate that it seems like she speaks a lot more than she does. She also knows the words (mostly phonetically, I think) to lots of random songs, from Clementine to Hava Nagilah, so we had some fun butchering some vocal/mandolin renditions of them.

A somewhat more random job I helped with a bit was transferring sheep to their summer pasture up in the hills. Well, I didn't actually do anything with the sheep themselves, but I did help haul a lot of wood and fence segments around to set up the new sheep pens, and had some fairly harrowing tractor rides in the process. Luckily, though, I wasn't on the tractor when they were towing the van up to the hill. (The van doesn't run, but it holds a mattress, and that's where some of the shepherds will sleep while they're living out there.) Mihail was driving the tractor and getting a bit too rambunctious (I blame his cowboy hat) and he ran both it and the van off the road and snapped the tow bar. However, there was a construction crew just up the road from where we were, and he just pulled over and got one of them to weld it back together again.

Me in our Trench In the second week, Robin showed up and things changed a bit. Robin is an Englishman who speaks even less Romanian than I do and is trying to build a new school there. I say "trying" because it's barely started and it may potentially be a somewhat hopeless task. Pro Vita already has a good half-dozen buildings under construction but apparently not being worked on at all. So who knows how far the school will get, especially if they try to do most of it with volunteer labor (which last week consisted almost entirely of me and Robin). But we worked away at it nonetheless. I spent several days basically just ditch digging -- a drainage ditch and a foundation trench -- with occasional breaks to haul rocks around. It was much more sheer physical labor than I've done in a long while, but at that point in time I welcomed it. It felt really good to be completely clear on what I was supposed to be doing, and to have such quantifiable progress and effects. It was also just nice to spend time work and hanging out with Robin, speaking English unabashedly.

So overall, I kind of have trouble justifying my trip in terms of benefit to Pro Vita. I feel like if I wanted to be helpful, I could just as well have written them a check for the amount of my program fee + plane flights and had done with it. I wouldn't say it would necessarily be like that for any volunteer at any time, but that's the way it played out for me. Still, I did what I did, and it was positive even if small. And there were definitely other interesting, worthwhile aspects to the trip as well. More on that coming up.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

When in Romania....

Tomorrow at this time I'll be at the airport to catch my first flight on the way to Romania. For the next couple weeks I'll be miles away from any internet connection, so you won't be hearing from me for a bit. I'll be doing volunteer work most of the time at an orphanage called Asociatia Pro Vita, in a village called Valea Plopului, which is in Transylvania, sort of between Bucharest and Braşov (here). United Planet has a description of the project, and you can even find some videos of it on YouTube. I'll have a couple days in Bucharest on my own, too, before I head home again. I've learned a bit of Romanian so far, including the all-important "nu vorbesc româneşte" ("I don't speak Romanian"). I'll be reading my phrase book voraciously on the plane, though, and they'll teach me more while I'm there. Anyway, time to start thinking about packing....

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Next Book in the Universe

Today I finished recording my first audiobook for Books Aloud, just in time before I leave for Romania. It's cool to have finished it, though I wish I could listen to the whole thing to hear how it turned out, e.g. to see how consistent I was with character voices, etc. (I think something I signed at the beginning said they wouldn't/couldn't give me copies of what I record.) Now the recording is going off to someone else who will transfer the whole thing to cassette tapes, since most of the patrons are blind and therefore have an easier time with tapes than CDs. I'm not sure how long it will take to actually make it into circulation.

They also gave me the next book I'll be reading: another young adult novel called The Last Book in the Universe, by Rodman Philbrick. (Hopefully it won't be the last book I read, though.) I've read a bit of it so far, and the story seems reasonably intriguing, though some of the post-apocalyptic slang feels a bit forced.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Ceci n'est pas un pont

Tiptoe Falls Rowyn and I went to the Portola Redwoods State Park yesterday and had some lovely hikes around the little network of trails there. However, Pescadero Creek wends its way through there as well, crossing the trails at numerous points, and it turns out that most of the footpath bridges are only temporary, and are still dismantled from the winter.

The first time we came to a supposed crossing, we found the metal frame of the bridge hauled up on shore, along with a number of planks that probably had provided the solid footing for it. There was no other easy way to cross that we could see, nor could we spot a continuation of the trail on the other side, so we figured it wasn't worth wading. (There was a good picnic spot on a mossy rock, though, from which we watched other folks attempt to navigate the crossing.)

We backed up and came at the creek twice more with the same result: no bridge (at least not over the water), no handy rocks or logs, and no visible path on the other side anyway. We also tried options that weren't on the map (purely by accident, as the map was quite unclear about the [non]existence of various paths). Eventually we found a crossing with a thin, bouncy, fallen tree trunk stretched across it, and that did the job.

This let us make our way to the only specific scenic location we knew of and therefore our nominal goal: Tiptoe Falls. They're called "tiptoe" because they're just baby falls, and you never know when they might be napping, so you need to sneak up quietly on them. From a dizzying height of, oh, about 5 feet, they plunge thunderously into ankle deep water. Scenic in its own small way, though.

After that, we figured the easiest way back would be to find our way to the bridge on the service road, since the map didn't just show it as a dotted line crossing the creek, but three solid lines clearly indicating "solid, permanent, honest-to-goodness bridge on a road." When we got there, after several more inaccurate paths and some forging through the woods, here's what we found to get us across:

Ghetto River Crossing
  1. A concrete block, as if from an extinct dam.
  2. A narrow, wobbly plank over the water.
  3. A nearly vertical, muddy bank with no path or steps.
  4. A fire hose tied around a stump at the top and dangling down the slope so you could haul yourself up.

Hacky, but it worked.

Anyway, it was a lovely hike overall, and all the map and bridge silliness just gave us more mileage out of the little trails. We also saw newts (one of which dropped out of a tree at us), slugs (of the banana variety), and fairy doors in trees.

[p.s. here's the the title reference.]

Monday, March 31, 2008

Vipassana Meditation Retreat

Yesterday I returned from my first introduction to Vipassana meditation. This was a pretty incredible, intense 10 days, and I would recommend the experience to anyone and everyone. For me, it wasn't life-changing in a blinding flash of light kind of way, though I can see how some people might get that feeling. The light is more a steady glow suffusing everything else. You get a very different way of seeing and approaching things, and in that sense it's life-changing.

I have a bunch I want to say about Vipassana itself, so that's the first section here. Hopefully it's interesting to read, but if that's not your kind of thing, feel free to skip to the second section, which is more about my actual experience of the course.

About the Theory and Technique
First of all, I should mention that there are said to be three kinds of knowledge: blind faith, intellectual understanding, and experiential understanding. Vipassana is all about the third kind. They talk about the theory so you can know why you're doing what you're doing, but the truly important part is the practice. If you practice correctly you should see benefits in your life, regardless of whether you understand why (though of course that intellectual part does help the learning and the practice).

Therefore, I'm not going to describe the technique in detail. Part of this is because I know that if I saw the instructions written out, I would just jump to the end, say "that looks easy," give it a try for 15 minutes, and then give it up as no good. The technique is simple, but that's not the same as easy. It's a completely different experience if you spend a 10 hour day meditating on each incremental step in thoroughly learning the technique. (This is why it makes so much sense to have what seems like an intimidatingly long 10-day course for beginners.) However, I do want to share some of the ideas behind the technique.

Most of what they taught at the intellectual level wasn't anything new to me, and probably many of you have heard a lot of it before as well. Things like "suffering is caused by attachments to cravings and aversions," "everything is constantly changing and impermanent," "the only thing you can really control is how you think and react," and "only you can truly make yourself happy or unhappy." The problem is that just knowing this intellectually doesn't help much because it's so hard to do anything about it. And for a long time before the life of Gautama Buddha, this theoretical level was all there was, until he came along and created (or rediscovered) a technique for putting the theories into practice. That technique is Vipassana.

The theory says that there are four levels of the mind. The first two are perception and recognition -- pretty straightforward utilities that we don't need to worry about too much. Any sensory input (including thoughts and emotions) passes through these first. The third level is called vedanā in Pāli. This is the direct, physical sensation we feel as a result of this input. There are sensations created throughout our body for everything we experience. When we have a reaction to something "out there" in the world, what we are actually responding to is the physical sensation in our body generated by our perception of that object, not the object itself. That response comes from the final level, called saṅkhāra. It decides whether it likes or dislikes the sensations, then develops cravings or aversions to them, or trots out our old, established, habitual reactions. This is the problematic part, because the world is never conforming perfectly to our wishes, and we're therefore constantly feeling cravings and aversions that we can't satisfy, and that's what makes us unhappy.

The idea behind Vipassana is to learn to set up a filter of sorts between the vedanā and saṅkhāra parts of your mind. From a direct experience of the vedanā we can choose how best to react, without being slaves to our old habits of behavioral patterns or emotional reactions. The first part of doing this consists in developing your awareness. You learn to be aware of and focus on all the myriad sensations constantly going on in your entire body, from the most obvious to the most subtle. The second part requires developing your equanimity. Whatever sensations you observe, you do so objectively, dispassionately, taking them as neither good nor bad. If the saṅkhāra comes in and tries to make you react, you don't give in to it. The more you practice this awareness and equanimity together, the more you also come to realize (experientially) how much everything really is constantly changing. These things we form attachments to are coming and going, arising and passing away, all the time. Which makes it easier, of course, to just take things as they come and not form cravings or aversions for them.

I'll give a basic example first. When you're meditating 10 hours a day for 10 days, you have a plethora of very obvious and painful physical sensations to observe if you aren't yet good at noticing the subtle ones. At the end of Day 4, the first day of Vipassana proper, my legs were extremely sore and aching. I was also extremely worried that this would keep me from falling asleep, and then I'd be in horrible shape for getting up at 4 AM for another long day of work. Just before bedtime, though, I realized that we had just learned what to do about this. So I lay down, got my legs as comfortable as possible, then carefully noticed and analyzed the pains, letting my mind detach from them emotionally, and in that way was able to relax and go to sleep just fine. This is something I'm going to be doing a lot in the future, after long nights of dancing.

For another example, imagine being angry at someone. Your heart rate probably speeds up, along with your breathing. Various muscles probably get tense, and you may have other reactions. If you can really be deeply aware of and analyze these feelings, your experience begins to change. First of all, you're focusing internally rather than externally, so you're less likely to snap and do something stupid. And secondly, you start to realize that none of these feelings or impulses are really going to get you anywhere, so you can detach from them and start figuring out the logical, compassionate way to respond to the situation.

These kinds of experiences and reactions are going on at some level constantly in our lives. The big ones have bigger effects, but even the smaller ones are hugely cumulative over time, and can have large effects on our happiness and the happiness of those around us. Vipassana teaches you to whittle away at all of this; even if you don't have the presence of mind to practice Vipassana right in a specific situation, you're learning new habit patterns that affect your behavior even subconsciously. There's much more that can be said about the practice and benefits of Vipassana, but this is sort of what I see as the core of it, from a beginner's perspective, fresh out of my first course.

Also, hopefully it's clear from this that this isn't a religious practice in any way. People of all religions practice Vipassana and benefit from it, and the Buddha himself never wanted to convert people to "Buddhism." You're not only allowed but encouraged to keep your own faith. The evening discourses during the retreat had occasional references to reincarnation or karma, but they were always followed by a reminder that if you don't believe in that, it's not necessary for the practice of the technique.

About the Course
The California Vipassana Center is in a gorgeous area out towards Yosemite. The terrain is hilly and rocky, with lots of gorgeous manzanita trees. There are a few small walking trails within the course boundaries but I would have loved to have gone on some long hikes around there. There are separate dorms and dining halls for men and women; the meditation hall is shared, but divided down the middle.

The strict separation of the sexes is one of many rules that seem a bit extreme initially, but which come to make complete sense after a few days. Everything is designed to let you focus and concentrate to a degree that many of us had probably never experienced before. Noble Silence alone, which includes restrictions on even gestures and eye contact, frees up tons of brain cells that are normally engaged in everyday social navigation, politeness, etc. (It's very interesting, by the way, to be among 100 people who are all trying not to notice or be noticed by each other. Sort of like being in the middle of a rehearsal for a 10-day arrangement of 4' 33" with full choir.) The rule about celibacy, in addition to being about focus, gives you another desire or habit to learn to analyze and manage (and yes, this rule includes "self celibacy," if you know what I mean). As for separating the men and women, well, my meditation seat was on the aisle next to the girls' section, and I gotta admit, I was peeking sometimes. The mind really does grasp for any little distraction it can get.

I was put in the ghetto dorm, which seemed to be a couple trailers pasted onto a hut or something. Most of the others looked like they were probably nicer. On the plus side, there were only 5 of us in there (though it could have slept a lot more), so we each had a lot of space. I had a room to myself, which was very nice. We were all beginners in that dorm, and in spite of maintaining Noble Silence, we still saw each other coming and going all the time, and I still had a certain sense of camaraderie, with us all going through everything together.

The meditation hall is a large, carpeted room, with platforms in front for the assistant teachers to sit on, a stereo system for recorded instructions and chants, and a couple TVs for watching the evening discourses. (The teacher is S. N. Goenka, but the teaching is all through audio and video recordings from a course he led in 1991.) The floor is covered with a grid of meditation mats, and you get assigned your spot on the first evening and stick to it throughout. I was #36 (a 9 number, signifying The Hermit, appropriately enough) which was in the last row, next to the aisle. In the men's and women's foyers, there were huge collections of meditations stools, and cushions, pillows and blankets of all sorts. Within a couple days nearly everyone had elaborate, unique, custom configurations for their sitting spaces. When you get there early and just see all the stuff and no people, it looks like preparation for a giant slumber party. I wish I could have taken a picture. I had two separate configurations myself, for different situations, involving different combinations of a stool, four cushions, and a blanket.

Each day starts with an enthusiastic guy going around ringing a gong at 4:00 AM, when it is still very dark and cold. The first meditation session runs from 4:30 to 6:30, and you can do it in your room or in the meditation hall. In your room is a bad idea; beds are awfully tempting. The assistant teachers come in maybe half an hour from the end and play a recording of Goenka's chanting strange, guttural stuff in Pāli. I feel like I have a pretty decent acceptance of weird music in general, but it still took a little while for this to grow on me. In the end, I enjoyed having him there in some sense, supporting and encouraging us, even if I couldn't understand the words. There were shorter bits of chanting at most of the group sittings throughout the day as well.

At 6:30 you get breakfast, and a bit of daylight. Oatmeal, stewed apples, cold cereal, fruit, bread, and tea. I would usually pile all the warm stuff into myself that I could, then get back to my room and crawl back into my sleeping bag. The morning break went until 8:00, so I could usually get in a decent catch up to recover from 4 AM.

8-9 AM is a group sitting with everyone in the hall. These usually start with a recording of a chant or two and review of the instructions. 8:00 was usually my best time, since it was still early in the day, but I was feeling better than absolute first thing in the morning. Then there's a session from 9-11. In a lot of these, the assistant teachers would gather groups of five or six students together to have a little whispered conversation about how things are going with the technique, making sure every one is on the same page, and then meditating together for a few minutes. After that you can finish meditating in the hall or in your room.

11:00 is the lunch break, and longest break of the day, lasting a full two hours. Lunch is the main meal, and there was a nice variety of good, vegetarian food. The weather by this time of day was beautiful for eating outside and then going on a walk around the paths to stretch your legs. I'd usually take another nap as well, or at least lay down to rest and think.

The afternoon session from 1 to 5 was the longest, most grueling stretch. This was usually all just practice, with just a couple breaks. There was a group sitting in the middle, with the option to go off and practice on your own for the other three hours. I decided early on to just stay in the meditation hall the whole time. It was just more comfortable and easier to focus.

5-6 PM is "dinner" break. I use quotes because all you get here is some fruit and tea. Apparently you meditate better if you never get more than about 3/4 full, so they want to keep it light. For the most part this was alright, though I was always really ready for breakfast by the next day.

After another hour of group meditation, we have the thing we look forward to all day: the evening discourse. You still have to sit on the floor in the meditation hall, but it's a break with entertainment, which is otherwise unheard of. Each discourse was an hour-long video of Goenka talking about Dhamma, the theory of natural law that underlies everything we're working on. And he's really just delightful to watch and listen to. The overall impression is of someone's funny old grandpa just sitting on a porch talking about stuff and telling stories, and he can be really hilarious at times, too. Luckily Noble Silence didn't seem to apply to laughter, because there was plenty of that going on during the talks. But he also did a good job of getting the important points and concepts across.

The end of the evening had a short little nightcap of a session, during which we would receive instructions on what we would practice throughout the next day. (Most days had either new techniques or variations or refinements of the previous days' techniques, so you build up incrementally.) Then at 9 PM you could stick around and ask questions of the assistant teachers if you want, and then go to bed. If you're quick, you get 7 hours of sleep.

Speaking of asking questions, I did my fair share of that, as I always do. I mostly kept it to details and clarifications about the actual technique, though. I did have a lot of questions about the theory and application, but I found that after a day of sitting around and thinking about it, I could usually answer them for myself, which is much more satisfying and better for my learning process. Dhamma is really a very logical, scientific system, so pretty much everything I found myself wanting to know was work-out-able from the basic principles we got in the lectures.

Everybody has different ups and downs throughout the whole course. Day 2 is pretty commonly a difficult one. I think that's because it's the first day that you have to do it all again. On Day 1, you don't really know what it's like until you get to the end, but at 4 AM on Day 2, you have the maximum amount of awareness of upcoming torture. This was my worst day, painful, distracted, everything. But I think it was good to get the worst out of the way early on. There were some bumps later on, of course, but nothing as bad as Day 2.

On the afternoon of Day 4, we started Vipassana proper (after various meditating warm-up exercises) and with it began the Sittings of Strong Determination. You're always allowed to sit in whatever position you find most comfortable (ha! "comfortable") and shift as necessary. But during these sessions, you had to stay put for a full hour, without moving your legs or hands, and without opening your eyes. There were three of them a day, during the morning, afternoon and evening group sittings. This is where things really start getting tough. Luckily I had independently started forcing myself to keep still for a full hour on Day 3, so I had a bit of a head start. I think I did it more or less successfully every time for the rest of the course, though it took a long time before I could really achieve that in the right way. For some reason, it wasn't until Day 9 that I really grokked the equanimity part of it. Before that I had been relying far too much on sheer willpower and physical determination. But at least I got there in the end, even if it was kind of slipping under the wire a bit.

On the morning of Day 10 we were allowed to break Noble Silence and have a day of what Goenka calls "Noble Chattering." You can't practice as seriously then, but it gives you a bit of a transition day before going back into the real world the next morning. I had actually adapted to the silence extremely well, and found myself feeling very uncomfortable when the talking started up again (though there's something to practice the equanimity on). When the first guy passed me on the trail and said hi, all I managed was a grunt and a nod. By the time I got to lunch I could talk again, but couldn't concentrate. It was an immense struggle to focus on my conversation with the guy in front of me while being surrounded by other conversations, all of which I was perceiving approximately equally. Then there's also the weird issue of not really knowing who these people are in relation to yourself, after having spent 10 days with them but not interacting. Are they strangers? Friends? Comrades in arms? But things worked out and I got (briefly) to know some nice folks and there was some good fellowship there before we all had to leave the next day.

Coming back home was interesting. There's always some culture shock coming back from a trip of any kind, though luckily this particular trip gave me tools for dealing with that. But the real world is still somewhat overwhelming after a meditation retreat, and more so when I'm immediately given intense tests of my newfound equanimity skills. Oh well. I also talked the ears off a couple patient people, unleashing a flood of stuff I've been wanting to share for the last 10 days, which was very tiring. But I'm feeling better and more adapted today, so that's good.

If you're at all interested in learning Vipassana, please feel free to talk to me. I'd love to share more about the course and provide encouragement for doing it. I also have some informational materials to share, and there's a bunch of stuff on the website as well. It's really a fantastic experience that I can't recommend highly enough.

May all beings be happy.